Wandering in Vienna: Jem Cohen and the Adventure of Museum Hours

“Kunsthistorisches. It’s the big old one.” This is how Vienna’s massive, venerable, lovely and, indeed, elderly central art museum is termed in Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, and it neatly sums up the film’s warm, casual attitude toward weighty cultural institutions while serving as a way of reframing formerly perceived paragons of elitism in a more democratic manner. It also indicates the way that Cohen, an American outsider, and his two main characters—Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), a Canadian woman in town to hold vigil with her cousin Janet, who’s in a coma, and museum guard Johann (Bobby Sommer), who initially helps Anne with her tourist map to find her way around Vienna—playfully use the lingo of tourism as both a lingua franca and a way of breaking down any cultural barriers. Cohen’s blistering in-between film, Chain (2004), took on the alienation factor in both international travel and massive commercial developments like mega-malls as they affected a pair of characters, one being a female Japanese businesswoman visiting the US. Museum Hours, which is infinitely more optimistic, also explores the zone of the commons and how it affects two people, but in this case, both the public museum and the Viennese streets foster the film’s central human subject: a genuine friendship, one of the rarest subjects in the movies.

The powerful material, though, that brings Anne and Johann together, is the extraordinary collection in the Kunsthistorisches, whose name combines two of the great intellectual projects, art and history. Realizing that her stay with Janet—caught in a limbo between life and death—is going to go on longer than she thought, Anne settles into Vienna and gets a museum pass from Johann, who finds in Anne a person he can actually converse with about the great Brueghels, Rembrandts, Rubens, Archimboldos, and other works, rather than just another of the many visitors he wryly observes from his removed position as a guard. Her engagement draws him out of an alienated position, one he admits enjoying, into interaction with a member of the commons. Their congenial, never contrived interaction allows Cohen himself to shift from the perspective of the distanced gaze he’s so thoroughly mastered over the course of two decades—in such diverse films, sometimes straddling fiction and non-fiction, as Lost Book Found (1996), Amber City (1999), Benjamin Smoke (2000), Instrument (2003), and Evening’s Civil Twilight in Empires of Tin (2008)—and to a far more intimate involvement with his characters, including long passages of written dialogue and multiple storylines that have previously played no real part in his cinema.

Cohen explains in the following conversation that he and his crew would joke that since so many Austrian filmmakers make movies about how rotten people can be, then why not make one about basically good people? Thus, the magic strength of the outsider, able to look at “the big old one” with a new set of eyes (including the crowds of daily visitors who roam the halls and stand in front of masterpieces, including plenty of bratty teenagers) and intent on finding the elements that can connect strangers at a time when themes of separation can often feel like an automatic, stop-gap position adopted by many smart filmmakers. And this outsider’s eye rejects the usual view of the loneliness of the Vienna city streets, roving and wandering down its blocks and passageways, discovering along the way all sorts of oddities and chance encounters outside and inside bars and restaurants. The way life is lived, away from the cinema.

Cinema Scope: What were the ideas that fed into the making of Museum Hours?

Jem Cohen: It was really a culmination of thinking about several things for years. There were many threads that came together. One is addressing what a documentary is. I was addressing it with Brueghel as a passageway. He’s an artist I had always admired, though he’s never been an obsession of mine. He’s able to accurately depict the peasant life of his days, which was unusual and actually radical. He also has a completely original approach to landscape. I had seen Brueghel’s paintings one at a time, but the Kunsthistorisches Museum has the finest room of his work in the world, and there you have a gathering of his trajectory. Perhaps the most amazing thing that affected me standing there in the room was not knowing where the centre was in each of the paintings. That’s what I connected to most, because when I’m shooting on the street, the background and foreground tend to merge, and the viewer’s eye wanders because it’s not directed to a central point. Particular details, sometimes on the periphery of the paintings, got to me as I visited the room several times. In all my films, it’s often the marginal subjects that can compel interest. When I made Amber City, I also wanted to touch upon the idea of cities and museums, but it was something about this museum in Vienna—it’s otherworldly in its lighting and extremely beautiful. It really has to do with my emotional and artistic ties to the street photography tradition. I’m interested in these kinds of matters rather than the advocacy issues that dominate at least most of American documentary filmmaking.

Scope: Still, the title suggests that it will be a film about art, or about the art world. That ends up being a misnomer.

Cohen: There’s a danger that people may assume that it will be an art historical or theoretical film, and that’s exactly what I was steering away from. I wanted to explore how the works on the walls of the museum are important to people now, not how they’ve read about it. It’s a bit like John Berger, who can be both erudite and write about art in a down-to-earth way, how painting relates to life. It troubles me from a distance that people might think about it as elitist work about an elitist institution. In fact, the museum is not elite, and the film is about how people take what’s theirs, what matters to them.

Scope: The film feels like both a continuation of your past work, and also something like a departure, especially with the several scenes involving characters in plentiful dialogue.

Cohen: I’ve found myself on a path from my first film, and this film is a much broader statement on that path, but it’s a big leap for me, no question. To work with so much dialogue isn’t what people think about when they consider my work. But I wanted to tackle some philosophical and other ideas and have them brought down to earth by the commonplace and joking interactions of characters. It’s a way of addressing bigger issues but unpretentiously.

Scope: One thing that many viewers will come away with after watching Museum Hours is wondering about your actors Mary Margaret O’Hara and Bobby Sommer, and how you got them.

Cohen: Mary is very good in Robert Frank’s Candy Mountain (1988), and she’s been in other films, but her other roles were basically light. She’s always been interested in being a character on screen, but I didn’t think anyone did her justice. I had seen Mary perform as a singer over 25 years ago, and her presence is astonishing. I thought it would be wonderful to have her in a movie. Bobby has worked in guest relations for the Viennale, and like Mary has had a long career in various parts of the music world from being a roadie, to having his own group in Vienna, Bobby Sommer & Onkel Lou. I thought it would be interesting to blend their attitudes and behaviours, with scenes that are sometimes scripted, sometimes not at all, sometimes with tight dialogue, sometimes not. I’m not very experienced working with actors, partly because I’ve mostly concentrated on actuality/documentary as a starting point and partly because I do have a resistance to acting as it’s often formulated in the movies. In a sense, this was a clinic, and the movie is indeed a pretty weird combination of approaches. Much is carefully written, down to each dotted “i,” but a lot is entirely improvised. I like it that some of the dialogue feels half off the rails and quite imperfect—that’s the way people actually talk.

Scope: Another surprise for followers of your films is the running drama involving why Mary comes to Vienna in the first place, to be with her cousin while she’s in a coma. Were you concerned that this might take Museum Hours in a melodramatic direction?

Cohen: Well, it was important to have a real and human interest to compel Mary to come to Vienna and stay there for a while, to kind of settle while remaining an outsider looking in. She feels that it’s her responsibility to deal with her cousin, her coma, and possibly her decline. I wanted to set this up very carefully. I didn’t want this story strand to take things over, so that it might become a deathbed movie, nor did I want there to be a predictable romance between Mary and Bobby.

Scope: No, because what develops between them is something not seen too often in movies, which is how a friendship develops over time between two strangers.

Cohen: Right, because the audience has been conditioned to automatically think this will be a love story. This is a long-held notion, and it may come from something as basic as audiences going to the cinema to experience something different from their lives, to experience something that they’re lacking. But the cinema I care most about is about the drive toward the everyday, how we actually do live, how we feel, about things that actually happen. People love the fairy tale, but that’s not what happens here. It’s weird that there aren’t more movies about friendship. The king of this is Cassavetes, whose movies are all about friendships in all their light and dark shades, and also give you the sense of not knowing where the centre is, or where things are going to go, where circumstances are going to take you. One thing we joked about during filming is how all these Austrian movies are so often about how awful humans are. Why not make a film about good people?

Scope: For all the apparent departures in Museum Hours, you also maintained your usual working methods, like filming a lot on your own before production proper even began. How did this inform the final shooting?

Cohen: I shot around town with my windup Bolex weeks before we really got going, to get a real feel for the city. Some of the earliest pre-production shooting with the Bolex were really just tests and sketches, but then I found I couldn’t let them go. In fact, they became crucial, so I re-wrote the script to incorporate them. Some things fall into your path as real-world gifts and you just want to accept them. I learned from the start of my filmmaking life that I can wait for eight hours and get a couple of shots that matter, and that that’s all I need that day, since I’m not burdened with the massive production apparatus that weighs down a lot of other filmmakers. Part of my modus operandi is to make strengths out of the limitations of not having money and people. And I also wanted the film to have that sense of an outsider who’s wandering through the city, so I took that perspective on myself, and wandered the city as an outsider. I also did this in Chain, and also by having the camera adopt the point of view of the character. The environments should be at the centre, not less or more important than other things. Cinema tends to discourage wandering. There are these tremendous pressures, with money and time, which really discourage wandering. You run a lot of risks if you put people in a bar, for example, so if you don’t lock down the location, you may risk losing your scene. But you also may lose the element of surprise. We really embraced that. We had almost no location agreements in Vienna. We often just went into a place and started shooting, and then we asked for permission. We shot just one day in the Kunsthistorisches Museum when it wasn’t open to public; otherwise, we filmed during public hours—with permission of course. We just shot what we captured, but didn’t shoot a huge amount of footage.

Scope: Would you say that this is a film whose great subject is that the importance of the commons?

Cohen: That’s an interesting question. I hadn’t thought about that. My early short, Lost Book Found, turned out to be a homage to Walter Benjamin, even though I didn’t know about him until I completed the film. I understood him from the street level. So, sure, that perspective is really valid, especially when you think about the nature of the streets where my main interest lies. The street should be a free space, belonging to everyone, where anything can happen, where everything isn’t controlled. This is a much stronger sensation in a city like Marseilles, or one of my favourites, Naples. Hopefully, I’m headed to Naples for my next film.

Scope: Do you view Museum Hours as being a part of this larger phenomenon that many filmmakers have been vigorously exploring, the in-between film?

Cohen: Yes, absolutely. I think of the great ones as including Franju’s Le sang des bêtes, which starts as a tour of Paris outskirts, and then suddenly you’re in hell. Jean Vigo always made in-between films. If there’s a director who’s always in my back pocket, it’s Vigo. It’s not so much Zero de Conduite (1933), it’s also L’Atalante (1934). It defies where a movie romance should go, and a great deal of it is about friendship. Luce Vigo came to see Museum Hours twice in Locarno. She saw it as a political film, which I was glad to hear. But like you were saying that it’s about the commons, I hope that the film can be read in many ways. It can be daunting to watch, but I needed to make the movie I made. Chain is a harder movie, the environments in that film are like bludgeons, but the discomfort here may be, not shapelessness, but that things unfold in various directions at once.

Scope: You’ve been seen as a guy closely attached to 16mm, but you’ve also embraced digital cinematography. What was your thinking in terms of shooting exteriors on 16mm and interiors on two types of digital cameras? Were these choices a combination of practical and aesthetic considerations, or more one than the other?

Cohen: Film is where I come from—both 16mm and Super 8—and I’ll shoot them until they’re gone, but I’m a “by hook or by crook” filmmaker, and for Museum Hours digital was a necessary part of the strategy. We investigated and tested shooting 16mm in the museum, but the light levels are so low we would have had to shoot wide open at all times, a nightmare for focus. I told the museum from the start that I wouldn’t bring in any lights. Also, since a good bit of the dialogue was improvised, digital allowed multiple takes without as much concern about money. The Red One is a big and complicated beast and in no way viable for the kind of solo wandering with a camera that I needed to do in the city—it would just attract too much attention, and it takes a while to warm up when it’s turned on, which is terrible for grabbing stuff off the cuff. So, oddly enough, a little 16mm windup Bolex that doesn’t need batteries and runs great in the cold was actually more practical. Film will probably always be closer to my heart, but I believe in flexibility and economy too. So it’s no longer really a film vs. video question for me, and I don’t regret mixing them. That said, I could go on for some time about the magnitude of the loss that’s taking place as film disappears. I feel it most acutely when I’m shooting grainier stocks or black and white, where the organic quality of the film is inextricable from the image. I just wish it wasn’t economics and corporate interests making the “time to end film” decisions. In a better world the powers that be would let film and digital coexist and augment each other; film would simply be too respected for its contributions to the fabric of creative endeavour to be allowed to go under. Of course, we don’t live in that better world…

Scope: What’s your approach as an editor? Due to circumstances, you became your own editor for a large portion of the editing phase. How did you go about this?

Cohen: I’ve usually cut my own films in the past, but on this I worked in tandem with Marc Vives for a while—he cut Putty Hill (2010), which I really liked and with which I share a lot of approaches, so I figured he’d understand my odd ways of incorporating material from my “undirected” footage archive. He did a great job on some scenes, but then we just didn’t have the dough to keep him on, and since I have my own editing system set up in the middle of my apartment, I just kept going on my own. And I have to say I had a great time with it. My approach is really a kind of collage that comes together in the edit rather than ever existing as a finished script or template. In the case of Museum Hours, the editing was really, really intuitive. I did a lot of refining over a long stretch, but very little re-cutting. I think the movie was quietly gestating for a long, long time, and eventually I had to trust it on a level that wasn’t exactly explicable.